#thoughts: In Defense Of Alcantara

I am not an expert on fabrics, but I do have strong opinions.

image via PC World

You probably haven’t heard of alcantara. I hadn’t until it suddenly became a major point of skepticism when Microsoft recently released its long anticipated Surface Laptop. In the reviews following the release, Wired, Time and the Verge have all made raised an eyebrow at the durability of the fabric palm rest that surrounds the keyboard. The Verge has been the loudest of critics in regards to Microsoft’s decision to use the suede-like polyester, with four separate pieces vocalising their concerns. The issue? Potential users seem to be overwhelmed with the anxiety that the keyrest won’t be able to withstand spilt lattes, Oreo crumbs and gallons of palm sweat over years of use.

Look, I get it: This is an entirely valid concern to have over a laptop that will cost its users over $1,000. This is especially more reasonable once you consider that Microsoft understands that the Surface Laptop sits in the high-end.

Just like anything luxury that you buy, like great handbags or a pair of shoes or even expensive cars, there is a care that’s needed for the device. And so from the materials perspective, we will ask customers — specifically customers who might stain it or drop something on it — to go ahead and wipe that right away. There’s a simple way of doing that with a microfiber with a soap and water solution on it. You don’t need any special chemical and you can wipe it off. Then just care [for it in the same way] that would go into anything that luxurious. That’s more of a periodical thing, not super frequent, something you might look at doing every six months or something. And so if you think of the livelihood of this laptop, somewhere between four and five years, it’s not that often you have to do it in terms of taking care of it.

When you take into consideration the high-end price point, in association with the above quote from Microsoft’s general manager of Surface Engineering, Pete Kyriacou’s, it seems almost understandable to sympathise with The Verge’s Micah Singleton’s response of, “What kind of advanced troll is this?”

Perhaps branding it as a “luxury” product is a somewhat elitist approach, but the reality of the situation is that a large majority of high end laptops (Apple included) are in fact that: luxury products. And they should be treated as such.

Sure, their intended purpose is to serve as a utility machine for students, businessmen and creatives for productivity, but would Apple be spending so much time in crafting its aluminium unibody designs if they weren’t trying to convey a sense of premium luxury? Hell, even Apple reps themselves have compared holding the iPhone to holding a piece of jewelry.

We could get lost in the semantics and connotations of “luxury” all day, but that is to miss the point entirely. The harsh reality is that without proper care, all laptops get worn out over time.

I’m not saying alcantara is the most resilient material in the world, but Kyriacou’s comments shouldn’t be dismissed. If you spend significant amounts of money on high end products, you really should do your best to take care of them. I mean, is it that laughable of a suggestion that users clean their laptop every “six months” or so? That is to say, if you weren’t cleaning your all aluminium Macbook Pro every six months, I’m sure it wouldn’t be shocking for your peers and colleagues to raise a skeptical eye brow at your hygienic priorities.

And that highlights another key issue with this on going criticism: to bring up the concern that alcantara might degrade over time is to passively imply that competing laptops made of aluminium or other plastics and metals are resilient beasts, incapable of wear of tear. While Bohn conceded to Kyriacou’s point that “even when you test metal laptops, those get dirty”, such an admission doesn’t immediately neutralise the preceding criticism. If this were to be an unbiased discussion about the durability of consumer laptops, then that’s fine. Unfortunately, the narrative formed is one of caution to any potential buyer of the Surface Laptop that it has a higher potential for long term damage than any other laptop. And with the laptop only being mere weeks into its release, “potential” becomes the operative word.

I simply don’t understand why this same courtesy isn’t extended to any other consumer laptop, with the MacBook Pro seeming to be as equally as prone to longterm damage to the wrist rest as any other laptop.

In a recent interview on the Vergecast with Bohn and Nilay Patel, I think Surface chief Panos Panay summated it best:

Like any kind of precious object — anything you love or care for — you have to care about this product like you care about any laptop that you use, and if you want it to wear and you wanna push it…it’s gonna wear and it’s gonna be like that awesome old pair of jeans that you love and wear perfectly to who you are and that’s your personality. Or you’re gonna keep it pristine. They both sit right there as options.

In this, Panay highlighted an underlying preference that users sometimes don’t realise they have. I had never consciously considered it until writing this, but I carry my Macbook Pro freely without a plastic shell. Simply put, I personally just find them to be hideous and tacky. As a result, however, my three years of caseless carrying has resulted in my laptop incurring it’s fair share of battle scars. Sure, the tech purist within me longs for my laptop to look as pristine as it did the day I removed it from its box. Yet, at the same time, I also embrace these dints, palm stains and scuffs as a badge of honour; these are the defining characteristics that make my machine as personal as the wallpaper that I pick.

This is my decision; my carelessness and years of use are of direct blame for my laptops aesthetic wear. In some anecdotal readings, one particular Reddit user of the Surface Pro complained that his detachable alcantara keyboard was stained after years of using it within his car repair shop. In my opinion, that’s an absurdly unrealistic level of expectations for such a premium machine to withstand such a harsh environment.

Unfortunately, all consumer products are prone to these vulnerabilities, and while I wish we lived in a world with indestructible and un-stainable devices, this simply isn’t the case. And to me, this leaves the onus squarely on the devices owners.

Continue the discussion on reddit here.

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